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This article was published 11/10/2017 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When it comes to scoring goals, the Manitoba Moose have often been the 98-pound weaklings repeatedly getting sand kicked in their faces.
Sure, they try hard. But they haven’t exactly cut an imposing figure in their two seasons since returning to Winnipeg. And it’s no coincidence they’ve been on the outside looking in when it came time to drop the puck in the playoffs.
After opening their 2017-18 season last weekend with a two-game split in Grand Rapids, there are some positive signs that perhaps the Moose have bulked up and are ready to flex their offensive muscles.
Manitoba put up nine goals on an impressive Griffins team that is coming off a Calder Cup championship and is widely regarded to have one of the best goaltending tandems in the American Hockey League. That included a seven-goal explosion in Saturday night’s lopsided win. To put that in perspective, the Moose only scored seven goals once in each of the past two seasons.
"It was pretty impressive," Moose head coach Pascal Vincent said Wednesday following practice. His team is gearing up for their home opener on Friday against the Cleveland Monsters at Bell MTS Place.
The Moose scored 197 goals last season, putting them in the bottom third of the league. That was actually an improvement from the 180 they scored a season earlier, which was second-worst.
Vincent believes their offensive fortunes began to change last year when Kyle Connor was sent down from the Winnipeg Jets. After a slow start with the Moose, he found his groove and the team began lighting the lamp on a more consistent basis, with Connor leading the way with 25 goals and 19 assists in 52 games.
That appears to have carried over. Connor scored twice on Saturday while adding an assist. Fellow top prospects Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux each had a goal and two helpers. Off-season addition Michael Sgarbossa, a proven player at this level, also had two goals and an assist and promising young defenceman Sami Niku registered his first two pro assists.
Roslovic enjoyed a terrific rookie season with the Moose last year, leading the team in scoring with 13 goals and 35 assists in 65 games. With a full year under his skates, Roslovic said he and many of his young teammates are ready to take the next step. He’s especially happy to have Connor back on his line.
"I think we can be a pretty dynamic duo in any league that we play in," Roslovic said. "I think the difference between your first and second year is probably the biggest of the years in terms of where you see the growth of your game."
Moose captain Patrice Cormier, an old dog at 27 compared to many of the young pups on the team, is tasked with helping to mentor some of that youth. He said while development is still the main focus on the farm, it shouldn’t come at the expense of on-ice success.
"We gotta get ahead of the curve here and win games and not be looking to catch up. We’ve got to put some wins together," he said. "We’re ready to win games, we’re ready to compete. There’s almost no excuses for us."
Vincent said the key to Moose success is to have multiple scoring lines, rather than just a couple players opponents can key on. In addition to Connor, Roslovic, Lemieux and Sgarbossa, Manitoba also has free-agent signings Buddy Robinson (one goal and one assist through two games) and Brody Sutter, plus legitimate prospects such as Chase De Leo, J.C. Lipon and Michael Spacek to give them a solid three-line attack this year.
"We would like our offence to be more spread out throughout the team," said Vincent, who believes team defence is actually the key to more offence. "If you play right defensively, if you can defend, it means you get the puck back faster. If you get the puck back quicker, you can create offence, you can create chaos."
The Moose suffered last year from a lack of mobile, puck-moving defencemen. But Niku and free agent signing Cameron Schilling (two assists in two games) give them some more options this year on the blue line.
"We’ve seen a guy who is confident with the puck. He can move east-to-west very fast and can jump into an open space very fast," Vincent said of his early impression of Niku, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL draft.
The 21-year-old Finn said Wednesday he’s still trying to adjust to the smaller ice surface in North America, along with an increased pace to the games.
"Good offensive game and power play is my strength," Niku said.
He credited Jets superstar Patrik Laine with helping him quickly adjust to his new surroundings. The two are longtime friends and continue to spend plenty of time together in Winnipeg.
"It’s been much easier," he said.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.